Public services are adopting digital technology, which makes life easier for Brussels residents, saving them time and money and reducing their travel. But despite these advantages, technology can also be an obstacle for the regional administrations users. This is why administrations are interested in the digital divide and taking steps to fight it. Today we are talking about digital inclusion.
Generally speaking, administrative simplification relies on vast technological solutions within the Smart City: virtual counter, proposals for new digital services, for example using open data, automation and computerisation processes. Digital tools testify to the digital transformation we are currently experiencing. They offer real advantages when it comes to reducing the administrative burden on users, but they also have their downsides.
Digital by default, which has been adopted by authorities in different European countries, runs the real risk of excluding disadvantaged groups. According to a study by the Ligue des Familles and Eneo, technologies isolate sections of the population and can even be a source of stress for some.
In Brussels, 15% of the households has no internet connection and 11% of the population has never used the web (figures from CABAN-network).
So how can we ensure that Brussels public services meet the needs of all their users?
Digital support structures
The Brussels administrations are choosing to develop digital services whilst maintaining traditional services. The public service is therefore accessible to all users, regardless of their skills, knowledge or financial resources. The absence of one or more of these elements regularly causes a digital divide in Brussels.
Support structures in the Brussels-Capital Region, such as the Digital Public Spaces (DPS), are attempting to combat digital illiteracy at its source, by offering professional support to less connected sections of the population and providing them with IT equipment. DPSs are increasingly providing assistance to users more familiar with electronic means of communications, such as freelancers, SMEs and students.
Sustainable digital inclusion policy
In November 2016, Easybrussels held its annual symposium on the theme of digital inclusion. Its purpose was to make Brussels administrations and public services more aware of the need to simplify administration whilst paying close attention to digital inclusion.
Organised in partnership with Idealic, the federal research project on digital inclusion, this symposium, called “The Brussels Digital Citizen”, featured local experts, other regions and representatives of the scientific and community worlds, who all shared their visions in a bid to reduce the digital divide. During themed workshops, some 200 participants from Brussels public bodies learned about the extent of the digital divide in Brussels, reflected on the issue and proposed solutions.
After the event, the Idealic researchers created a list of 12 recommendations for effectively fighting the digital divide in the Brussels Region. These recommendations include the huge responsibility on the DPS sector to improve the digital skills of Brussels society as a whole. This financially fragile sector cannot currently meet the growing and increasing diversified demand. To do so it requires support from a sustainable regional digital inclusion policy.
The future of public services
DPSs alone cannot bear the burden of digital inclusion. The Brussels administrations have a crucial role to play and to do so must ensure that all Brussels public service employees support the digital culture. As a result, the handling of requests from citizens and businesses can improve, not by simply redirecting users to online services, but by offering constructive support during the stages that allow them to become familiar with these digital services.
But the digital divide cannot be reduced without structural resources. The day-to-day support and training work must be supplemented by measures to counter the risks involved in the development of new technological tools. These tools can compromise the skills of those sections of the public that are currently connected, potentially creating a new vulnerable group.
The agency Easybrussels aims to make regional authorities and all the parties involved in digital inclusion aware of the need to simplify the administration as well as consider the different requirements of the Brussels population and the need for administrations to develop. To do this, it is working closely with the BRIC (Brussels Regional Informatics Centre) teams.